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Today we associate Sweden with liberal values and a peaceful society. It has not been involved in a war since the Napoleonic era. However, in the Early Modern Period the Kingdom of Sweden was one of the powerhouses of Europe and the greatest power in Northern Europe<ref> Peterson, Gary Dean. Warrior kings of Sweden: the rise of an empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (London, McFarland, 2007), p. 2</ref>. Under the House of Vassa the kingdom had expanded greatly. It had emerged as one of the real winners from the Thirty Years War. By the 1660s the Kingdom of Sweden directly controlled the modern states of Finland and the Baltic States. It also had extensive possessions in Northern Germany, Poland and Russia <ref> Peterson, p. 215</ref>. Its fleet also dominated the Baltic. Charles XI of Sweden had managed to defend the extensive Empire and had greatly expanded its influence. This able king died while still a relatively young man. His son became king of Sweden at the age of fifteen. The young monarch belonged to the Royal German House of Palatinate. Charles was the only surviving son of Charles XI and his German wife Ulrika Eleonora the Elder. The young monarch at first had been controlled by a council of regents but at the incredibly young age of fifteen he became the sole ruler of the kingdom. The sight of a mere boy on the Throne of Sweden alerted the neighbours of the Swedes. They all had grievances with the Swedes and resented what they saw as their domination in the Baltic Sea. In 1700, a triple alliance of the kingdoms of Denmark, Poland and Russia launched a three-pronged attack on the Swedes. The Poles and Danes attacked the Swedes in Northern Germany and the Russians attacked them in the Baltics and thus began the Great Northern War. It seemed that the young Swedish monarch would lose his empire but the young man was to prove himself to be a military genius. Charles launched a surprise attack on Copenhagen and knocked the Danes out of the war. Charles then secured major victory over a much larger Russian army in 1700 at the Battle of Narva, when Peter the Great narrowly escaped with his life. Later Charles campaigned in Poland and imposed his choice of king on the country. The Swedes secured devastating victory by Swedish forces under the general Rehnskiöld over the Russians and their Saxon allies at the Battle of Fraustadt in 1706<ref>. Thomas Derry, History of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland (2000) p 154</ref>. By that year all the enemies of Charles XII had been vanquished and only Peter the Great remained at war. The Russian Tsar sued for peace but Charles rejected the overtures and decided to invade Russia. By this time, he was popularly known as ‘The Alexander of the West’, a comparison with Alexander the Great <ref> Voltaire. The History of Charles XII (London, Upton House, 1911), p. 34</ref>
==Charles XII invasion of Russia, 1708-1709==
While Charles was bogged down in the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the Russian Tsar Peter the Great reformed the Russian military and ironically modelled his army on the Swedish forces. While the Swedes were campaigning in Germany and Poland after 1706 Peter ordered his forces into Ingaria and found a new port that was to become the City of St Petersburg. This gave the Russians an outlet to the sea, from which they could threaten Sweden in the Baltic. Charles was outraged at what he saw as a surprise attack<ref> Voltaire. p. 112</ref>. According to Voltaire he wanted to annihilate Peter the Great. The Swedish monarch was quoted as saying ‘"I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies" <ref> Voltaire, p. 37</ref>. In 1708, he ordered a general invasion of Russia and he decided to ally himself with the rebellious Cossacks who had revolted against Peter in the Ukraine. Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks, had managed to secure a vast area that was independent of the Russians. Charles assembled a large army but at the last minute was obliged to leave some of his troops with the Polish King who was his puppet. In total, the Swedish army was composed of 50,000 men, mostly Swedes and Finns. Many units were needed to defend Sweden and its extensive Empire. Charles marched his army into Livonia (now Belorussia). The Russians and the Swedes clashed in a great Battle of Holowczyn. Charles was confronted by a huge Russian army that was numerically superior to his own. The Swedish king secured a great victory with only minimal losses. The Russians decided that it was best not to meet the Swedes on the field of battle and they adopted guerrilla and hit and run tactics. At this point Charles was urged to march on St Petersburg but the young monarch wanted to seize Moscow and put a puppet on the throne. He ordered the troops he had left with the Polish king to join him, no sooner than they had left that his Polish ally faced a general revolt. The reinforcements were attacked by Peter’s army and suffered many casualties and lost many precious cannons. Charles was now reliant on the support of the massive Cossack rebellion led by Mazepa in Ukraine<ref> Derry, p. 116</ref>. The Swedes had been told by the Hetman of the Cossacks that he could provide them with 40,000 men. However, the Russian army was quick to react and they launched a surprise attack on the Cossacks at their capital Batruin in the Ukraine. They did so before the Cossacks could rendezvous with the Swedish army<ref> Hatton, R.M. Charles XII of Sweden (London, MacFarland,1968).The invasion force of Charles was now in the vast Steppes of the Ukraine with little support and an overextended supply line. Winter was approaching and in the cold many soldiers succumbed to frost bite. The Swedes decided to retreat to their winter camp in Western Ukraine in November 1708. In the following summer of 1709 in a skirmish with some Russians, Charles was wounded and fell into a coma. Leadership of the army passed to Rehnskiöld. The Swedes came across the army of Peter the Great at the fort of Poltava in June 1709. Despite being inferior in numbers they besieged Poltava. Rehnskiöld launched several assaults on the fortifications but all ended in failure, one assault ended in disaster and the entire army retreated in chaos. The Swedish king was by now able to once again lead his men but it was too late. The bulk of the Swedish army retreated to Perevolochna, where they were soon encircled and forced to surrender. Charles XII managed to escape with a small number of followers into Ottoman territory and he later returned to Sweden. The invasion of Russian was a disaster and it spelt the end of the Swedish Empire and marked the advent of Russia onto the European stage as a major power<ref> Hatton, p. 278</ref>.
==Russia and its geography==
The sheer scale of Russia and its endless Steppes proved simply too much for the Swedes. Like subsequent invaders they struggled in the vast landscape with its harsh climate. The Swedes were inured to Arctic weather, yet even they felt it was extremely challenging fighting in the Ukrainian Plains<ref> Voltaire, p. 89</ref>. Charles lost many men to the extreme cold and to frost bite. Furthermore, they were far from home and their supplies were scant. Trying to live off the land was futile as the Steppes had no real population centres and those who lived there were usually destitute<ref> Hatton, p. 217</ref>. The sheer scale of Russia meant that Charles army was in a state of near physical collapse when it encountered the enemy at Poltava and even if it had won here, it seems likely that it would have disintegrated as Napoleon’s Grand Armee had in the winter of 1813.